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Holidays amid COVID-19: Missoula celebrations look different than years past
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Holidays amid COVID-19: Missoula celebrations look different than years past

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On Thursday, Dec. 10, the first night of Hanukkah, about two dozen people bundled up and gathered outside of Har Shalom in Missoula to light the first candle on an outdoor Hanukkiah.

The event felt like a big deal and absolutely normal at the same time, said Rabbi Laurie Franklin of Har Shalom.

“It’s the return of a familiar pattern and it’s also completely different,” Franklin said. “There’s a sense of wanting to connect with the people who came but we aren’t hugging.”

Holidays have always been a time to gather, eat, drink and be merry. But as with many events throughout 2020, celebrations look different this year. Many long-held Missoula traditions have been modified to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Har Shalom opted for lighting the Hannukiah on the first and last nights of Hannukah, as opposed to every night as in previous years.

Similarly, this year’s Christmas tree lighting at the Railroad Depot on North Higgins Avenue was spread out across 10 nights to avoid the potential for the holiday tradition to become a super-spreader event. The Parade of Lights was altered to provide a drive-by experience for families to view floats from their cars, and other events such as Tuba Christmas were held outside.

The revamped celebrations add a sense of normalcy to a holiday season when that feeling is hard to come by, but certain aspects of the holidays just won’t be the same in 2020.

Many people won’t be able to travel to visit families, and grandparents and older relatives may not see much of their families at all. Millions have lost income during the pandemic and are struggling to meet basic needs, and many local businesses are scrambling to stay afloat. Over 300,000 people are dead of COVID-19 or coronavirus-related catastrophes.

Despite all of those things, efforts to foster the holiday spirit remain strong.

In the week leading up to Missoula County Public Schools’ holiday recess, students in the Hellgate High School choir caroled at various spots downtown Missoula.

This year is the first where the choir isn’t singing at school assemblies, holiday luncheons, or a rotary breakfast for retired teachers, because none of those events happened this year.

“It’s definitely way different,” said Melody Irvine, a senior in Hellgate's Chamber Choir.

Irvine has been a member of the school’s choir since she was a freshman, and said she has always looked forward to holiday events with the choir. She said the lack of celebrations this year has felt sad and lonely at times, but said her family has made more of an effort this year to practice holiday traditions to keep their spirits up, like putting the tree up on Thanksgiving or recording carols for a virtual Christmas card.

Ellen McKenzie, Hellgate’s choir director, said the idea to carol around downtown Missoula came about after school assemblies were canceled this year.

“We just wanted something to do,” McKenzie said. “We've been working on holiday music and we had toyed with the idea of doing a concert in Bonner Park or in our auditorium with limited seating.”

Those ideas were vetoed by school administration, but other groups have built off similar ideas.

Gary Gillett, the director of the Missoula City Band and organizer of the city's Tuba Christmas, worked with the Missoula City-County Health Department to hold Tuba Christmas in Bonner Park.

Gillett modeled the Christmas event off his plans for the Missoula City Band’s summer series which he held outdoors. In pre-pandemic years, Tuba Christmas was held at Southgate Mall with up to a hundred tuba players and an audience of Christmas shoppers.

But this year, Gillett said he had to cut back on the number of players by about two-thirds, which was determined when organizers of the summer concert series marked socially distanced spots on the concrete at Bonner Park. Gillett borrowed patio heaters from Draught Works, cancelled plans for a rehearsal to avoid players being in the cold for too long, and told attendees to dress warm and wear their masks.

“All the players were so thankful to be able to to play together because we can all play by ourselves but it just doesn't cut it,” Gillett said. “The joy of making music for almost all of us comes from playing with each other.”

Many local shops have also forged on through the holiday season with social distancing measures in place, among other precautions.

Rockin Rudy’s is one of many stories that has implemented a policy for some customers to wait outside when the store reaches its capacity under current COVID-19 directives.

Amelia Regalado, the store’s general manager, said business has remained steady and is picking up with Christmas around the corner.

“It’s the holiday season so it's really busy and it’s pretty similar in that sense,” Regalado said. “People are still out supporting local but we have a ton more people doing curbside and phone orders.”

The store recently listed more items on their website, but Regalado said she expects the store to stay busy until Christmas and expects that they’ll have to continue limiting capacity. The upside has been a more positive shopping experience.

While some events like the MADE Fair have been cancelled this year due to COVID-19 concerns, a handful of those artisans are offering products online at handmademontana.com. Some merchants have opted for venues like the Missoula Valley Winter Market, held inside the vacant Lucky’s store at Southgate Mall.

On Wednesday, Russ Parsons was among a small handful of shoppers browsing handmade goods in search of Christmas gifts.

Parsons said he is making an effort to shop local this year, although his family is doing most of their shopping online.

“This is a way to support local people who are making cool stuff,” he said.

Parsons said the biggest change this holiday season has been fewer gatherings with family and friends. He said that he, his wife and their daughter plan to celebrate Christmas together, but said there are many friends they haven’t seen in months.

Franklin, of Har Shalom, echoed the same sentiment, but said that not being able to spend as much time with loved ones has made her appreciate how much that time means to her.

The Jewish congregation has not held any in-person services for months, and despite the lack of celebratory sharing of foods, conversation and time with people this year, Franklin said she feels that that time will come again.

Apart from providing a chance to see faces that she hadn’t seen in months, Franklin said the lighting of the Hannukiah this year was a poignant metaphor for finding light during dark times.

“We’re still in a dark time," she said, "because even though we have a vaccine, it’s going to be quite a long time until public spaces are safe for people. But there’s just a hopefulness in it.” 

Cameron Evans' most memorable stories of 2020

My favorite five stories of the year involved uncovering the state's largest COVID-19 outbreak in a nursing home and complaints about safety measures at that nursing home, a woman who brought attention to the ways that construction on Higgins Avenue Bridge posed dangers to pedestrians and cyclists, a look at the use of TIF funding in Missoula and how much money the Missoula Redevelopment Agency has in the bank, and a new weekly roundup of local government news coined "Politics Pop."

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